Abstract Art - Introduction
Must we not renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds, and instead lay bare the fully abstract?
Wassily Kandinsky, 1911
Of all the art styles considered to be 'Modernist', Abstract art has been the most enduring. An abstract painting is one which doesn't depict the recognisable, visual world (although some painters distort either a figure or object without disguising the original subject matter entirely). Rather, paintings explore the power of line, colour and form for their own sake, in order to bypass literal perception and to tap into unconscious awareness.
Beginning in late 1911 in Europe and across the course of 1912, a handful of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, Robert Delauney and Sonia Delauney-Terk produced paintings that differed from almost all of those that preceded them, in that they had no discernable subject matter.
By 1913, a trend towards abstract art had been establised by a number of artists including Hans Arp, Vanessa Bell, Natalia Goncharova, Paul Klee, Fernand Leger, Kazimir Malevich, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian and Hans Richter. (The trend also commenced and flourished overseas, in particular in the US.)
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911
In December 1911, in Munich, Wassily Kandinksy exhibited Composition V, which had only almost indiscernible reference to figures.
To many, this painting is considered to be the first real abstract painting.
It was exhibited about same time he published the first edition of On the Spiritual in Art (first drafted as early as 1909 and published in 1911) - his first treatise on abstraction which put forward his theory that an artist was a spiritual being that communicated through, and was affected by, line, colour, and composition.
Kandinsky asserted that colours and shapes carried meaning in themselves, much like music.
It is believed that he heard music when he saw colour, (a neurological condition called synaesthesia, in which a person finds that two usually separate senses are combined). He wrote "a light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello".
At the time he drafted the first edition of On the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky considered that art required some reference to identifiable subject matter.
However, by 1911, he believed that total abstraction offered the possibility for profound, transcendental expression and that copying from nature only interfered with this process. A key factor in his move towards total abstraction appears to be his attendance at a concert by Vienese composer Arnold Schönberg in January 1911. Following this performance (Theory of Harmony) he made two quick sketches of the concert, and radically distilled their forms until only traces of the subjects remained. Later in the year he began work on Composition V, which almost thoroughly erased identifable content, and announced the artist's ambitions for abstraction.
Composition Series, 1910 - 39
In the slideshow is Kandinsky's Composition series, ranging from works painted in 1910 to 1939 (unfortunately Composition I, II and III were destroyed during WWII).
You can see through this series how Kandinsky has become increasingly abstract, and also how there is a greater focus on pure design and composition - note the geometric shapes from Composition VIII, and how the painting appear less 'busy'.
You may also see how he has attempted to introduce a musical rhythm to these works.
Kandinsky also painted two other series which were derived from the field of music - Impressions and Improvisations.
Suggested Videos and Reading
video about Kandinsky's paintings by the Guggenheim Museum http://vimeo.com/10317180
Key Abstract Artists
Abstract Art can be identified by the following features:
Does not depict the recognisable, visual world accurately;
Some paintings destort figure or object without disguising altogether;
Paintings explore the power of line, colour and form for their own sake.
Artists from this period include:
Frantisek Kupka 1871-1957
Francis Picabia 1878-1953
Robert Delauney 1885-1941
Sonia Delauney-Terk 1885-1979
Hans Arp 1887-1966
Vanessa Bell 1879-1961
Natalia Goncharova 1881-1962
Jaques Villon 1875–1963
Vladimir Tatlin 1885-1953
Varvara Stepanova 1894-1958
Man Ray 1890-1976
George Grosz 1893-1959
Paul Klee 1879-1940
Fernand Leger 1881-1955
Kazimir Malevich 1879-1935
Franz Marc 1880-1916
Piet Mondrian 1872-1944
Hans Richter 1888-1976
Theo van Doesburg 1883-1931
Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Alexander Rodchenko 1891-1956
El Lissitzky 1890-1941
Liubov Popova 1891-1956
Max Ernst 1891-1976
Joan Miró 1893-1983
The Birth of Abstraction in Europe
Another key, albiet unintentional, influence on the birth of abstraction was Pablo Picasso. He was not a supporter of abstraction, believing that 'you always have to begin with something', but several of his pictures influenced Kandinsky. In 1910 Picasso produced a small series of paintings which featured angled planes defined by linear scaffolding that shifted across the works' surface (a prelude to some of his cubist works). Only the faintest traces of a figure or still life were discernible. Kandinsky saw photographs of these pictures in late 1911, which assisted him in moving along the path from the theory of abstraction to its practice, as you can see above.
Artist Robert Delauney, who had been corresponding with Kandinsky, saw three of his works at the at the Salon des Independants in Paris in early 1912, and "understood these works to herald the birth of abstraction". Soon afterwards, Delauney's art also moved in this direction, with his works being shown in Zurich, which further exposed the style of art withinin Europe. Swiss artist, Paul Klee, saw these works and proclaimed that Delauney "has created the type of autonomous picture, which leads, without motifs from nature, to a completely abstract life form".
In October of the same year, Frantisek Kupka exhibited two paintings, both with musical titles, at the Salon d'Autome in Paris, which demonstrated independance from traditional subject matter. Kupka was a member of artistic circles in Paris in which ideas about avant-garde practices were being discussed (and you will see several of these names throughout the sections on abstract and cubist art). He met with Marcel Duchamp, the Delauneys, Picabia, Leger, poet Apollinaire, Gino Severini, Albert Gleizes, Emile Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger.
Francis Picabia exhibited a work at the Salon d'Autome in Paris with Kupka which invoked a figurative reference through its title, Amorpha, but was nonetheless a declaration of abstraction. Fernand Léger also exhibited a work at the Salon, Femme en Blueu (Woman in Blue), which rather than portraying woman dressed in blue, seemed the efface the figure with large arcing planes of that colour, so that there is almost no trace of a reference to a human figure at all.
Poet Guillaume Apollinaire also played an important role in publicising the advent and developments in this new mode of art. In the February 1912 issue of Les Soirées de Paris he declared that "the new painters paint pictures that no longer have any real subject matter". As a friend of many of the artists he encouraged and supported the idea of abstract art. (Sources: ...isms Understanding Modern Art, The Illustrated History of Art, Inventing Absteaction 1910 - 1945.
Robert Dealauney Simultaneous Windows, 2nd motif 1st part 1912
Robert Delaunay chose the view into the ambulatory of the Parisian Gothic church Saint-Séverin as the subject of his first series of paintings, in which he charted the modulations of light streaming through the stained-glass windows and the resulting perceptual distortion of the architecture.
Fernand Léger Woman in Blue 1912
Rather than portraying woman dressed in blue, Léger appears to have effaced the figure with large arcing planes of that colour, so that there is almost no trace of a reference to a human figure at all.
Pablo Picasso Standing Female Nude 1910
This highly abstract charcoal drawing of a standing female nude was one of several studies on this theme he produced in the spring of 1910. Although reduced to a series of lines and semicircles, without any semblance of three-dimensional form (despite areas of considerable shading), the essential parts of a human body—head, neck, shoulders, arms, torso, breasts, legs, and kneecaps—are all there.
Wherever you are right now, find an object in sight and use it as the basis of an abstract artwork.
In this exercise, rather than being completely abstract, give the viewer a hint as to what your artwork is about.
Think about the compositional and colour values of your work so that the item you are painting is not important of itself.